Divisions between Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling and the City Council were laid bare Monday during the last meeting of the current council.

Numerous councilors criticized the mayor just before midnight, at the end of a seven-hour meeting, the council’s final gathering before two veteran councilors are to be replaced by newcomers elected Nov. 8.

Although councilors had previously acknowledged a rapid breakdown in their relationship with the mayor, their frustration Monday focused on Strimling’s public criticism of a deal to sell a small piece of waterfront land to facilitate the redevelopment of the former Portland Co. complex and improve access to other city-owned property. The council ultimately approved the sale for $400,000 by an 8-1 vote, with the mayor dissenting.

Councilors and staff members were dismayed to see Strimling criticizing the deal in a newspaper article just days before the vote, and after a series of meetings about the deal.

City Councilors Edward Suslovic and Jon Hinck, who lost their re-election bids and were participating in their last council meeting, were particularly blunt.

Hinck wasn’t part of the council committee that negotiated the deal, but said he was at least generally aware of the negotiations and felt welcome to provide input. He suggested that Strimling, who works full time as Portland’s mayor, was asleep at the switch.

“That must be someone who has absolutely no involvement in what’s going on in the city and was completely taken by surprise,” Hinck said of his reaction to the mayor’s critique. “But it turns out it wasn’t. It was one of us. Except it wasn’t just one of us who has a part-time job as a city councilor. It was the only one that has a full-time job” as mayor.

Councilors also were upset that Strimling’s criticism seemed to trigger a public backlash, with some residents on Monday questioning the earnestness and loyalty of the city staff to Portland taxpayers.

Suslovic called those attacks “absolutely disgusting” and “a new low.”

“It does concern me, as I leave the council, that this now seems to be the way we do business, which I think is extremely worrisome in the city of Portland,” Suslovic said. Strimling had previously tried to derail a tax break for a local business as it was lined up for council approval. “This really concerns me that this now appears to be a pattern of behavior,” Suslovic said.

The criticism was not limited to the outgoing councilors.

After receiving guidance from the City Council, the staff began negotiating a deal with developers CPB2 for a 12,000-square-foot parcel back in April. The issue appeared on the agenda eight times, according to one councilor, before coming to the council with a unanimous recommendation from the council’s Economic Development Committee.

City Manager Jon Jennings said Strimling’s assertion that the $1.2 million extension of Thames Street would benefit only the proposed redevelopment of the Portland Co. “just isn’t true.” He said the road, coupled with another road that would be built by CPB2 on its property, would aid the city’s efforts to turn another parcel, the so-called Amethyst lot, into a public park. The city-funded road, which has been contemplated for over a decade, would also help the city sell a gravel parking lot for redevelopment, Jennings said.

“It concerns me this is not the first time we’ve had a person try to change the negotiations of this committee in the middle of the game,” said Councilor David Brenerman, who chairs the Economic Development Committee. He lamented the “misinformation” about the proposed sale.

“I have grown increasingly aggravated over the course of this debate,” said Councilor Justin Costa, who suggested the mayor’s criticism came after he failed to sway the council in private meetings typically associated with real estate negotiations. “We can’t just cherry-pick information to come up with some scenario.”

City Councilor Jill Duson said she was “flabbergasted” by the discussion. “I’m not inclined to substitute the mayor’s judgment for the committee’s judgment,” she said.

Councilor Spencer Thibodeau repeatedly noted that he had done his “homework” before coming to the meeting.

“Words matter,” Thibodeau said. “These words have a direct impact on the credibility and the appearance of competency of city staff and council committees, which is a little bit troubling to me.”

Strimling, who promised to be the “Listener in Chief” who would unite the council, came to his own defense midway through the discussion, saying that he let his concerns be known during the deliberations. He said he never accused or alluded to anything “nefarious” about the deal, nor did he criticize the city staff. He simply believed the city could get more than $400,000 from the developer.

“We’re all entitled to our own opinions,” Strimling said. “I do have a different opinion about this. And I did express that opinion.”

 


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